Ludwig Wittgenstein

Born in Vienna to a very wealthy family, his father was a friend of Andrew Carnegie and had a near monopoly on steel in the Austro-Hungarian empire. Three of his four brothers would commit suicide, the fourth would lose an arm in World War I but still manage to become a concert pianist using only his left hand. His sister Margaret was a patient of Sigmund Freud’s and would later be painted by Klimt.

Ludwig went to the same elementary school as Adolf Hitler. There’s no clear evidence they met, although they were only two grades apart and it is possible but by no means agreed upon that the two as boys appear in the same school picture.

After studying in Berlin Ludwig worked on designing plane propellers with jet engines, he got a patent on one, but became frustrated. He spent some time “experimenting with kites at the Kite-Flying Upper Atmosphere Station near Glossop in Derbyshire.” He went to Cambridge in the UK where he pestered Bertrand Russell. John Maynard Keynes invited him to the join the Apostles, the gay-skewing secret society. Ludwig wasn’t that into it.

In 1913 his father died and Ludwig became one of the richest men in Europe. He moved to a remote village in Norway.

(his cabin used to be to the left of this picture, I’m told)

Eventually he found this place too busy.

When the Great War broke out, Ludwig volunteered for the Austro-Hungarian army, though he probably could’ve gotten out of it for health reasons. He served on a ship, was wounded in an explosion, became an officer directing artillery from no-man’s land, won several medals for bravery. He was there during the Brusilov offensive, where somewhere between 200,000 and 567,000 of his comrades were killed. He kept notes during the war:

The meaning of life, i.e. the meaning of the world, we can call God.
And connect with this the comparison of God to a father.
To pray is to think about the meaning of life.

In summer 1918 he took leave and went back to Vienna where his family had many house.

It was there in August 1918 that he completed the Tractatus, which he submitted with the title Der Satz (German: proposition, sentence, phrase, set, but also “leap”) to the publishers Jahoda and Siegel.

He went back to the front, this time to Italy, where he was captured and spent nine months in an Italian prison camp. After the war he gave away his huge inheritance to his siblings, and went to train to become an elementary school teacher. He became a teacher in a mountain village in Austria.

In 1921 the Tractatus was published. Here is the first sentence:

Die Welt ist alles, was der Fall ist.

Plug that into Google Translate, or use the standard translation, and you will get:

The world is everything that is the case.

Does that comma matter? Should it be:

The world is everything, that is the case

Or, in the Ogden translation, the first English version, approved by LW? Although he didn’t really speak English at the time?:

The world is all that is the case.

What about “case”? I have no background in German but looking up the word Fall it seems to also have connotations of drop, fall, instance.

That’s as far as I’ve gotten in the Tractatus. It doesn’t get easier from there:

The world is everything that is the case.[1]

1.1 The world is the totality of facts, not of things.

1.11 The world is determined by the facts, and by these being all the facts.

1.12 For the totality of facts determines both what is the case, and also all that is not the case.

1.13 The facts in logical space are the world.

1.2 The world divides into facts.

1.21 Any one can either be the case or not be the case, and everything else remain the same.


The decimal figures as numbers of the separate propositions indicate the logical importance of the propositions, the emphasis laid upon them in my exposition. The propositions n.1, n.2, n.3, etc., are comments on proposition No. n; the propositions n.m1, n.m2, etc., are comments on the proposition

Here’s my source. I have not decompressed all 75 pages.

This book will perhaps only be understood by those who have themselves already thought the thoughts which are expressed in it—or similar thoughts. It is therefore not a text-book. Its object would be attained if there were one person who read it with understanding and to whom it afforded pleasure.

As LW himself says.

After several years as an apparently terrifying rural elementary school teacher Ludwig hit a slow-witted kid on the head so hard he collapsed. In trouble, Ludwig resigned his position. He worked for a while as a gardener at a monastery. He designed a house in Vienna:

It took him a year to design the door handles, and another to design the radiators

He made some long confessions to friends, about things like white lies. He went back to Cambridge for awhile. He would relax by watching Westerns in the front row of the movie theater. Invited by the President of Ireland, Eamon De Valera, himself a former math teacher, to come over there, he did. He went back to the UK and during World War II he worked in a hospital.

He started working at Guy’s shortly afterwards as a dispensary porter, delivering drugs from the pharmacy to the wards where he apparently advised the patients not to take them.

After the war there was another Irish period, along Killary:

The nearest shop/post office was 10 miles away. He had to do his own housework and saw nobody except Tom Mulkerrins, who brought him his milk and kept him supplied with turf and conversation. He used the kitchen table mostly to work on, writing his aphoristic sentences on slips of paper and taking great pains to arrange them in the correct order. He did little cooking and almost all his food came out of tins. He spent hours watching seabirds and talking to them in German. The Mortimers, who were his next nearest neighbours, thought he was mad, perhaps because he wanted them to shoot their dog, whose barking disturbed him.

(source on that).

Realizing in 2012 I took a walk along Killary Harbour (it’s a fjord) not far from where he was holed up, it looks like this:

You can walk seven miles without seeing a person, easy. It’s along Killary Harbour too that Martin McDonough set The Beauty Queen of Leenane, a masterpiece of comic cruelty. I’d be curious what Wittgenstein thought of that play.

Ludwig took a trip to the USA, he went back to the UK, he was diagnosed with prostrate cancer, he died in 1951.

Just trying to wrap my head around the basic facts of this guy’s deal, prompted by this New Statesman article on the 100th of the Tractatus.

Say what you will, this guy was something!


A funny idea

IMG_3140

from this week’s Economist

if you read about Nietzsche there’s always this idea that at some point he “went” insane.  A funny idea is trying to determine where the line is there, exactly.